In late February, Neon Trees played a secret show in Arizona. The intimate performance marked bassist Branden Campbell’s first full set since having open heart surgery in December 2013.
Born with a mutated aortic valve, Campbell knew for many years he’d eventually have to have a valve replacement. By the time he went under the knife, his doctor informed him he was only getting about 30-percent functionality.
“If you can imagine, I’ve had this problem going all of my life, and even five years ago, I’d play shows and I would feel something,” said Campbell. “It’s gotten worse and worse over the years, even when I’ve been active and exercising quite a bit. The last show we played before my surgery was in Australia, and I was really feeling it. I knew it was definitely time to take care of it.”
Two months later, Campbell was back in business. He marked his return to the stage with a morning-after tweet and a selfie featuring an ear-to-ear grin.
“Last night was a good sign,” he said in an interview later that day with fender.com. “I was like, ‘Wow, I feel completely different than I ever have, especially in the last five years. So it’s awesome, and I think for this next tour that we are doing, we’re going to be doing close to a two-hour show, so it was due time.”
Speaking of due dates, Neon Trees third studio album, Pop Psychology, will hit streets April 22. Recorded throughout 2013 in Cabo San Lucas, Los Angeles and Provo, Utah, Pop Psychology was helmed by Tim Pagnotta, who also produced the band’s smash hits “Animal” and “Everybody Talks.”
Pop Psychology lead single “Sleeping With a Friend” has been ruling the radio airwaves over the last few months, but fender.com pried a few more details out of Campbell in this Q&A.
A: Songs were being prepared even a year ago because writing is always happening in the band and people are always bringing in demos. Tyler [Glenn, frontman] is always creating something on his computer or whatnot. Tim and Tyler were in Mexico for a while working on demos, and then we started the record in June. We have a new production facility in Provo, and we got together and did all of the preproduction—hammering out all of the songs as a band and figuring out parts that we wanted to do. From June through early September, we then split up. Elaine went and did the drums. I went off to do the bass tracks. We tried to approach this, maybe like making a hip-hop record where we did it in sections to where we could really have fun and experiment with each of the different parts. We’ve already proven to ourselves that we can be the band that plays in a room together and jams off each other, but we were like, “Let’s go do this where we can each individually work on our parts.” For me, it meant I could use a certain bass on the intro, and then use a different bass on the chorus. Or, in the middle of a different part, instead of a bass, I could use a mood synthesizer. There weren’t people sitting around waiting for me, whereas you can’t just switch it up in the middle of a song if you are all recording live in a room together. Instead, we took that freedom to— I don’t want to say piece it together because I don’t want to make it sound like a piecemeal thing, but it was just a fun and different approach where we could really mess with things, for better or worse.
Q: What was it like working with Tim Pagnotta again? How did he impact the direction of this album?
A: We just tapped into this great collaboration with Tim. He’s like our George Martin. It’s great working with him.
It’s really just like a different jumping-off point. Sometimes you play with a different drummer, for instance, and that helps you see something a little differently. I compare it to why people have tapped into doing alternative tunings on guitars. You get stuck playing in patterns. As you learn your scales over time, you tend to what I call, “start playing in the box.” That muscle memory and those habits are hard to get away from, so now you do an alternative tuning, and right away, it makes you hear things differently even if you are doing some of your familiar things. I think that’s why it is great working with collaborators who are just going to give you that different jumping off point and take you in a new direction.
Q: This album was kind of under the radar, too. Did that take some of the pressure off?
A: Yes, the great thing about this album is that no one knew we were doing this so there was no deadline. Part of what came from that was being able to really live with the songs. Sometimes what happens when bands have deadlines, they’ll make the record and right away they’ll go on tour. They start playing the songs live and then kind of finally tap into the part they really wanted. Then they are like, “Crap, now I can’t listen to the record.” There are a lot of musicians who won’t listen to their record because they prefer what they are doing live and it’s kind of torture to listen to what was canonized in the recording process.
So for us, we had the opportunity to listen to a song for a month and then say “I know I did a different take, and I think I want to put in that other take I did, even if it’s just on this intro.” So I think that’s an important thing—living with the songs and knowing you got it right.
We didn’t tell anyone we were making this, and so we really got to live with the music and figure out what we really wanted to do. Same with working with the artwork, and photographers and making videos and stuff like that. We just took it on ourselves to do what we were comfortable with.
A: There was nothing drastic, but we actually had it re-mastered. This is funny coming from a bass player, but the low end was a little too expansive. It was too big. I like more of a tight, punchy low end. So again, I think living with it, we realized let’s re-master it, tighten things up a little bit, make it more focused. That’s something we got to do because there wasn’t a deadline. The record was basically done in October, and it’s not coming out until the end of April, so that gives us so much freedom to make sure that we really have what we want and we are really saying what we want to say.
Q: How did the album title come about?
A: Pop Psychology just worked because a lot of the song content is about Tyler dealing with his own psyche. There’s a lot of pressure on him, and there were a lot of individual things that he was dealing with, so a lot of the songs reflect that. We thought this was a cool title. You see us all on the cover of the album, sitting on his brain. I guess we were all on his mind.
Q: What is your favorite song on the new album?
A: My favorite song is one called “Foolish Behavior.” We have always referenced Billy Ocean as an influence of ours. Even though we never did anything similar to his tones, during the first couple of years that we were together and driving our crappy work van around on tours, we would totally listen to Billy Ocean. On this song, I finally tapped into that. As I stated earlier, working with different producers or collaborators is cool because they help you see things in a different way. Tim helped us in that way with this song. I’m proud, too, because it’s one of my favorite bass lines I’ve ever written. It’s very smooth and has a good groove to it. I think it also creates the vision that the lyrics create — it really takes you there. We were questioning if the album was going to have that song on it, and I thought, “No man, the imagery that’s in my mind when I hear those words and the groove when I hear that bassline, it’s just got to be there.” So, we finally accomplished that smooth pop sound. I love it!
Q: You mentioned earlier that you all had plenty of time to think about videos. Neon Trees always seem to come up with something unique with your videos. What can fans expect?
A: They can definitely be on the lookout for some videos. We don’t think you have to have videos for singles only. It’s fun to create stuff for a variety of songs. Even before we had a record deal, we did a video for a song called “Calling My Name.” You can find it on YouTube, and it is still one of the most fun videos we did. Some of it was even filmed on a Flip cam.
But as far as what to expect, all I’m going to say is Pepto-Bismol and piñatas.